Earlier this year, in January, an open letter co-authored by a group of feminists was published in Poland. It is a manifesto denouncing sexual violence and abuse. A call for solidarity and change. Ark has invited the authors of the letter to publish the English translation and, on this occasion, to write a short introduction explaining how they see the current situation in Poland in relation to women’s rights and their abuse.
Poland—conservative, patriarchal and catholic—is not a women-friendly country. Feminists have always been ridiculed, disdained and insulted here. To declare ‘I am a feminist’ has always required tremendous courage. And yet, there have always been women in Poland who did not lack it. They have written books, appeared in media, often facing journalists, whose main objective was to deride and humiliate them. There were not many of them, but they were there. Female activists, politicians, journalists, lawyers—they fought for changes to legislation and supported women who had been deprived of their most elementary rights; pleaded for the presence of women in the public debate, for respect and equal rights. They taught us what feminism is.
The issue of reproductive rights has always been a particularly difficult topic. Poland is one of the countries with the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe. Pregnancy can be terminated only if it is an aftermath of a crime, if there has been a severe damage to the fetus or if the pregnant woman’s life or health is in jeopardy. Unfortunately, Poland is also one of the countries where Roman Catholic Church exerts an enormous influence over politics and public life, and as a result women are often refused the right to terminate pregnancy even in justified cases. These anti-abortion regulations were introduced a quarter century ago.
In 2015, a radically conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came into power in Poland, and immediately, together with Ordo Iuris—an organisation formed by religious fanatics—went after women. In 2016, a barbaric bill, proposing to completely ban abortion, was submitted to the Parliament. Masses of women took to the streets in defence of their rights, organising marches and demonstrations. The #czarnyprotest (#blackprotest) hashtag flooded social media. Women then began to organise themselves—and they won.
The Black Protest revealed something no one had expected—suddenly, here, in conservative Poland, after twenty-five years of suppressing women’s rights, but also after twenty-five years of feminist work, a new generation of feminists has risen in the country—us. Not individuals anymore, but crowds. We felt strong, united and ready to change the world around us. For a year and a half since the protest took place, we have been creating a great number of new women-led organisations, kick-starting new pro-women initiatives and participating in innumerable debates: on both traditional and social media, but also, most importantly, privately, among ourselves—in our homes, get-togethers and parties.
When the #metoo campaign began in 2017, we were ready. Shortly after the greatest mobilisation of women history has ever seen, raised in a spirit different than the previous generations, we immediately understood the essence and the weight of what was taking place. We understood, because to us, uncompromised equality in each and every domain of life was a feminist no-brainer. Including sexual equality. Sex is not a taboo for us: we want to talk about enthusiastic consent for sex, we want to initiate sex, we want freedom, ease, openness and respect in sex. And since sexual violence is a real plague in patriarchal Poland, it was obvious for us that we have to scream about it.
Feminism is not an elite club of female intellectual workers. Feminism is a fight for the equality of all people. Feminism is a fight for the rights of all women. It champions women who have experienced violence, exploitation or discrimination on the grounds of their age, origin, colour, orientation or gender identity.
Thousands of Polish women took part in the #metoo campaign. Though to a lesser degree than in the U.S. or in Great Britain, Polish celebrities were also implicated. The first of them was Janusz Rudnicki, a writer who greeted a female journalist he had not met before, who was supposed to interview him, screaming ‘The whores have arrived!’ The journalist, encouraged by the wave of accounts of sexual violence, shared the story in a press interview. How surprised we were when we heard the remarks that were made on that occasion by well-known Polish feminists! “It’s not sexual violence, it’s just for fun”, “Oh, that’s just Janusz, we reproach him, but he would not listen!” They called the Polish #meetoo ‘the mountain, that has brought forth a mouse.’ And they talked about the “fun” the writer had poked at them too.
Then there was a letter written by a few young women, who described the violence against them by two young leftist publicists, Jakub Dymek and Michał Wybieralski. Accusations were made: of rape, of shattering a hand with a glass door, of disgusting text messages sent to the subordinates in the middle of the night. And yet again: Polish feminists, together with many others on the Polish left, signed a letter in defence of the “young and gifted” men. They warned against raising false accusations; they wrote about the presumption of innocence and character assassination.
So far, the #metoo campaign has found no closure in Poland. The men who have been accused by the victims of sexual violence have found a safety net in the form of their own milieu, while the women who have spoken up have been accused of slander. This has silenced other victims of sexual violence. We find this unacceptable. For us, it is obvious that one has to take the side of the more vulnerable, not the more powerful one. In a country where 92% of women have experienced harassment while 26% have been coerced—often multiple times—into sexual intercourse against their will, siding with women is one’s duty.
We are aware that in Catholic Poland, sex and sexual violence are a taboo. Women are denied the right to initiate a conversation, let alone sex. It is said that a decent woman should have self-respect and should not give in too quick. Uncalled-for advances are seen as a necessary part of flirting, while refusal is understood as a part of erotic play. Resisting sexual violence is labelled as puritanism and moral panic. For us, however, the line between romance and violence is clear. We want to enjoy sex and eroticism, but only on equal grounds.
We want a world where we can be both liberated and safe. If no one else wants to fight for it, we shall fight by ourselves. This is why we have written this manifesto.
The changing of the feminist guard! Time for true solidarity
Breakthrough events have taken place in Poland and around the world in the last few weeks, which have created an opportunity for an honest conversation about violence against women and for concrete actions against it.
The #metoo campaign, which began in the United States, has quickly spread around the world, giving strength and courage to thousands of women to finally speak up about the violence they experience daily. Women, famous and unknown, older and younger, teenagers, activists, journalists, actresses, have spoken of their mutual experiences of violence, pain, shame and anger. They have often talked about extreme cases: rape, sexual harassment, physical and psychological violence.
More often still, they have described sexist behaviour which was supposed to silence them both in their private and professional lives, and put them in their place: distasteful jokes, crossing the lines of personal space, abuse within relationships, unwelcome advances, insinuations and suggestions with sexual undertones. Many perpetrators have been named in public and lawsuits have been filed. When the #metoo campaign reached Poland, it revealed similar problems, while at the same time demonstrating the enormous scale of tacit consent for violence against women.
Counting among those who reacted to #metoo were the so-called feminist authority figures. Women, whose writings have traditionally been a source of inspiration for us, if not, indeed, a call for a feminist awakening. Allies, who used their prominence to fight for women’s rights. Unfortunately, their reactions were not what we would have expected from such figures.
Kazimiera Szczuka and Eliza Michalik publicly defended sexist jokes made by Janusz Rudnicki. In her radio appearance, Agnieszka Graff asserted that in a patriarchal state, “positive, enthusiastic consent simply cannot be expected from women.” Monika Płatek, commenting on a case of a famous actor accused of committing sexual violence, inexplicably failed to condemn the perpetrator and his actions, choosing to battle his critics instead. Agata Bielik-Robson, Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska, Zuzanna Ziomecka and Ewa Wanat signed an open letter in defence of journalists accused of abuse, ipso facto supporting the attempt to silence the women who have experienced sexual violence.
This is the behaviour of the heroines of the generation that has helped build polish feminism since 1989. Their backing for violence and harassment or carefree assertions that “there is no other way” make us feel that we are not represented by them. From our “feminists-in-chief,” we expect greater precision of expression and greater sensitivity, as well as a deepened reflection on the problems that thousands of Polish women face every day.
In a patriarchal world, one not only should, but must ask women for their unequivocal sexual consent. Not to further burden women, but to start to demand responsibility from men entering into sexual relationships.
In a patriarchal world, one not only should, but must protest against directing “humorous” slurs at women. Widespread acceptance for such a sense of “humour” solidifies the contempt towards women, which we have to struggle with everyday.
In a patriarchal world, compassion towards the perpetrator and not the victim reinforces violence – it muzzles the most vulnerable. If the feminists of the older generation do not realize this, apparently it is time for a changing of the guard.
Admittedly, the deteriorating situation of women in Poland in recent years—due to the lack of adequate sexual education, attempts to drastically limit reproductive rights and an increase in acceptance of violence—results from the onslaught of conservative right-wing. Nevertheless, the liberal centre also shares the responsibility for the current state of affairs. Not that long ago, there was an opportunity to undermine the current abortion pseudo-compromise, to introduce thorough sexual education in schools and to ensure help for women experiencing domestic violence. All these opportunities have been wasted.
The liberal centre is to blame for the current state of affairs seeing that it has kept its distance when it should have undertaken the struggle, and on account of its ideological laziness and —especially—its complacency. For some liberals, detaching themselves from right wing conservatism alone is enough to feel that they merit to pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness and openness. The time has come to state this loud and clear: this is not a way to fight for women’s rights—this is a way to perpetuate the patriarchal status quo.
On many occasions, we have fought arm in arm, as generations of suffragettes and feminists have before us. Time and time again, we continue to strive for the same elementary rights to make decisions about our own lives and about our sexuality. We demand freedom and dignity. Still, many more times we will be fighting together for women’s reproductive rights, for our security, for equality in a workplace and for freedom from sexism in both public and private spheres. But it is with the exactly same fervour that we must oppose harassment and sexual abuse—for these phenomena are elements of the same oppression and should be met with the same resistance. There are more and more of us who see feminism not as a professional or academic specialisation, but as a way of life. The time is ripe to ask the feminist authorities—are you with us?
In order to be strong enough to kindle change and a sense of sisterhood, the movement requires a consensus over the basic tenets, a solid foundation for collective action, as well as an acknowledgement of the following principles with regards to sexual violence:
- Any form of physical intimacy has to be consensual. Always. Without exception. If consent is missing, there is no sex—there is violence. Since women are disproportionately more at risk of sexual violence, a woman’s unequivocal consent is particularly important, and the responsibility to make sure the consent is granted lies, first and foremost, with the man.
- All interactions must be based on mutual respect, never on an instrumental treatment. In relationships where there is a lack of respect, there is abuse.
- No one who experiences sexual violence is to blame for it, regardless of age, looks, social status, sexual orientation or gender identity; regardless of the time and place of the incident. The guilt lies with the perpetrator. It is not the victim who should feel shame, explain themselves or be punished—the burden of guilt, explanation and punishment rests with the perpetrator.
- Each person, who is a victim of abuse, has the right to react and talk about what happened. They have the right to look for assistance, and society has a duty to provide it. The state is responsible for creating systemic conditions to counteract this type of violence and providing assistance, whenever it takes place.
- If you want to support the feminist movement, you have to support also those who speak out about sexual violence. Silencing these voices is not feminism, it hinders it.
- If you cannot or do not want to support those experiencing sexual violence—remain silent.
- If you do not know how to support such a person—ask, and ensure that your actions are of service to them.
- If you express yourself from a position of a social or economic privilege or you have not experienced such type of violence—be aware of this and try, first and foremost, to listen, so that you understand the situation of the other person.
- If you join the choir of those who discredit women and undermine their experiences, you are taking the side of patriarchy.
- When you choose loyalty to your cronies, when you prioritise convention over struggle for change, when you value comfort over sisterhood and solidarity with women experiencing violence, you destroy the accomplishments of many years of feminism, our common cause.
Feminism is not an elite club of female intellectual workers. Feminism is a fight for the equality of all people. Feminism is a fight for the rights of all women. It champions women who have experienced violence, exploitation or discrimination on the grounds of their age, origin, colour, orientation or gender identity. We proclaim the changing of the guard: it is time for a universal and uncompromising feminism of ordinary women and their allies. It is time for true solidarity!
If you would like to sign the letter, please contact email@example.com
Anna Adamczyk, Joanna Grzymała-Moszczyńska, Magdalena Malińska, Magdalena Mips, Iza Palińska, Kinga Stańczuk, Marta Tycner
Anna Adamczyk, feminist, geophysicist, politician
Małgorzata Joanna Adamczyk, anthropologist, educator, feminist
Nikola Adamus, programmer
Sergio de Arana
Barbara Ewa Baran, psychologist, feminist
Katarzyna Barczyk, entrepreneur, feminist, blogger
Emilia Bartkowska, culture manager
Wiktoria Beczek, journalist
Anna Lidia Błaszczyk
Łukasz Boniecki, programmer, politician
Barbara Brzezicka, teacher
Michał Buczyński, engineer
Aleksandra Cacha, psychologist, mother of sons
Magdalena Halina Czepkowska, law student
Piotr Czerniawski, editor
Natalia Daszkiewicz, artist, activist
Anna Dąbkowska, feminist
Laurie Debeni, activist, student of anthropology
Mateusz Dobrowolski, culture manager
Dominika Domczyk, teacher, translator
Olga Drath, chemist and educator
Wiktor Dynarski, activist and academic
Joanna Filipczak-Zaród, activist, psychologist, feminist
Daria Futkowska, mother of a daughter
Julia Garncarczyk, manager
Jakub Głuszak, father, husband, poet, programmer
Marta Gołębiowska, journalist and coach
Ewa Gromada, feminist, attorney
Joanna Grzymała-Moszczyńska, feminist, anti-discrimination trainer, politician
Florentyna Gust, student
Monika Helak, researcher and activist
Patrycja Jakubczyk, educator, feminist
Tomasz Jędrzejczak, student
Agnieszka Jurasińska, software tester
Anna Kamińska, feminist, educator
Filip Kania, student
Grzegorz Kawka-Osik, husband, father
Magdalena Kawka-Osik, dietician, mother of a sona
Małgorzata Klimowicz, journalist, Korean studies expert
Dorota Kłodnicka, sociologist
Wiola Krysiak, politician, bank clerk
Sara Kubiak, trade-unionist, feminist, mother
Magdalena Kunz, translator
Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, analyst
Paweł Laskoś-Grabowski, academic teacher
Katarzyna Lisikiewicz, social activist
Anna Macioszek, bioinformatician
Róża Majewska, social activist
Sara Manasterska, assyriologist
Piotr Masierak, journalist
Magdalena Mips, app and website designer, social activist
Michał Nakoneczny, philosopher, programmer
Magdalena Niedźwiecka Pruszkowska, urban activist
Michał Ochnik, Polish philologist
Iza Palińska, feminist, columnist, corporate employee
Alicja Palęcka, sociologist
Katarzyna Paprota, feminist, politician
Katarzyna Teresa Peplińska, activist
Mateusz Piątkowski, machine operator at a cable factory
Paweł Preneta, IT project manager, political activist, husband and father
Sara Prussak, political activist
Dominik Pucek, Coffee bar/club manager
Dominik Puchała, feminist, student
Agata Pyzik, columnist
Sylwia Rębosz, social activist, trade-unionist
Maciej Rolecki, father
Martin Saczek, office clerk
Weronika Samolińska, accountant
Jarosław Soja, lawyer
Joanna Soja, teacher
Anna Staniorowska, visual artist, art historian
Kinga Stańczuk, idea historian, teacher
Maja Staśko, literary critic
Piotr Sterczewski, expert in cultural studies
Ewa Stoecker, educator, anti-discrimination trainer, mother of a daughter
Maciej Szlinder, philosopher, translator
Anna Szudek, translator, columnist, music journalist
Magdalena Tuła, internet marketing specialist
Marta Tycner, historian, economist, mother
Marcin Zaród, sociologist, lecturer
Further signed (signatures added after 12.01.2018, chronological order)
Ingridd Jurczak, student, pet animal minder, activist
Anna Loth, medical student
Ewa Majewska, feminist philosopher and activist
Miłosława Niezgoda, architect
Jakub Baran, publishing house employee, political activist
Magdalena Dzwoniarek, student
Justyna Plec, tattoo artist, graphic artist
Natalia Malek, poet, literary event curator
Aleksandra Szkudłapska, translator
Mikołaj Ryszard Józef Skrzyński
Agnieszka Białek, Korean philologist
Paweł Mateusz Bytner, mathematician
Agnieszka Lamek-Kochanowska, feminist, wife, homemaker
Agata Róża Skwarek, Pole, medical care attendant, feminist, woman, human being
Olga Bobrowska, film culture activist, film expert
Aleksandra Wolek, feminist, law student
Marcin Szczodry, architect
Jolanta Rebejko, expert in cultural studies, cartoonist, saleswoman
Inga Koralewska, sociologist
Szymon Bogacz, philosopher
Aleksandra Chlipała, psychologist, feminist
Bartek Grędysa, copywriter
Dorota Kawęcka, politician
Tomasz Gromadka, dramatist, cultural program coordinator
Szczepan Kopyt, poet, musician
Oktawiusz Chrzanowski, social activist
Iwo Augustyński, academic teacher
Oliwia Glinka, philologist, graphic artist
Kaja Maria Zin
Jacek H. Graff, biologist, retired teacher
Katarzyna Krajewska, philologist
Grażyna Kania, director, lecturer, translator, feminist
Karolina Maciejaszek – director, feminist
Elżbieta Klimek, scientist; for 9 years I have represented in court proceedings 2 persons physically, sexually and economically abused by the same offender
Magdalena Żołnowska, chief accountant, feminist
Agnieszka Marczewska-Adamiec, activist, feminist, entrepreneur, mother of two young boy-feminists
Ewa Adamska-Cieśla – copywriter, feminist, aspiring blogger
Aleksandra Bućko-Obuchowicz, culture manager
Sylwia Grzybek – expert in cultural studies, designer, fem-artist, activist, wife and mother
Beata Sytkowska, mother, woman, human being
Zofia Jurek – graphic artist, precarious worker
Natalia Skoczylas, violence prevention consultant
Jola Ewa Kikiewicz
Sylwana Dimtchev, blogger
Aneta Nowicka, artist, director
Mariola E. Pijagin, physician
Martyna Słowińska, gynecologist, feminist
Janina van Trappen-Szczerbowska, woman and a human being
Grażyna Kowalczyk, human being, woman, mother of daughters
Henryka Szatkowska, HR specialist (retired)
Kinga Jędrzejewska, pedagogue
Krystyna Michalak, teacher, mother, grandmother
Kacper Leśniewicz, journalist
Lucyna Kirschenstein, journalist, poet
Agnieszka Łopatka, mother of daughters, physician
Agata Giermakowska-Węgiełek, entrepreneur
Waldermar Benedykt Wasilewski
Andrzej Kozłowski, retired, record player designer, one-time heartbreaker
Jolanta Mach, feminist
Anna Kwaśniewska, woman, wife, mother, grandmother, human being
Piotr Kamiński, pedagogue, social therapist
Maciej Paliński, husband, father, grandfather
Jadwiga Wątorska, tax advisor, mother of daughters
Waldemar Ostrycharczyk, journalist
Janina and Robert Bieniek
Ireneusz Adam Zakrzewski, Polish People’s Party (PSL)
Hanna Mrotek, teacher
Aleksandra Kulma, political and social activist
Adrian Jasiński, activist at OSK Sanok
Marta Motyl, writer, art historian
Arnika Kluska, feminist, activist
Joanna Alabaster, teacher, librarian, student, ex-factory worker
Jolanta Nabiałek, feminist, critic
Anka Górska, mother, wife, CNC machine operator, craftswoman, feminist activist
Mathias Foit, student
Emilia Kolus, software tester
Urszula Ptasińska, feminist
Martyna Równiak, chair of Sexology Study Group at the Medical University of Warsaw
Natalia Jakacka, physician
Ada T. Kosterkiewicz, feminist, blogger
Photo credit: Anka Adamczyk
Translation: Ark Books and friends